It was supposed to be the week that everyone went back to work, and children in England and Wales went back to school after the longest six months in many parents’ lives.
In Westminster, the most powerful people in the country wanted us to know that they were back in business. Dominic Cummings put on a suit and Boris Johnson, back at his desk after his Scottish sojourn, told the cabinet: “People are going back to the office in huge numbers across our country – and quite right, too.”
But the bank of screens in the control room at Transport for Greater Manchester (TfGM) on Thursday morning told a different story. The room has feeds from almost 2,000 cameras at bus stops, train platforms, traffic lights and tram intersections, and there is no better place to view the travel habits of Greater Mancunians.
Eight in the morning should be peak travel time for the region’s 2.8 million residents, but there was so little action on some of the screens that the operators occasionally had to check they had not frozen. “We’ve not seen rush hour return to Greater Manchester yet,” said Maggie Carter, TfGM’s head of network development.
St Peter’s Square, normally one of Manchester’s busiest tram intersections, was deserted, with no sign even of the Extinction Rebellion protesters who had occupied it earlier in the week. The park and ride on the East Lancs Road, which offers 275 free parking spaces for commuters taking the guided busway into Manchester from Wigan, seemed all but empty. Traffic even appeared to be flowing freely on Great Ancoats Street, part of the inner ringway, which is more of a car park during a normal rush hour.
Most staggering of all – at least for those still scarred by pre-lockdown nightmares on Northern Rail – the trains appeared to be running entirely without delay as they chugged along with 50% of their normal human cargo.
It was a similar situation in other big cities. In the West Midlands on Thursday, rail usage was at 23% of pre-Covid levels, buses at 53%, trams at 64%, but roads at 90%. In Tyne and Wear this week, Metro passengers were at 48% of former numbers, while the Shields ferry had 80% of its pre-pandemic custom. In London, the tube had just 33.4% of its usual passengers, and buses 52.8%.
Across Britain on Wednesday, car use was at 87%, down from 90% on the same day last week, while bus use outside London was at 44%, according to the Department for Transport.
Sean Dyball, the head of customer engagement at TfGM, spent all summer planning for the big return to the office and classroom. “There’s a bit of apprehension about what will happen,” he admitted, his words muffled by a black mask. “For quite a few months we had a very clear message: avoid public transport. That’s something you would never have imagined pushing as a transport authority. It was crazy. We’ve done a hell of a lot of planning but really we are heading into the unknown. Fingers crossed. Ultimately we don’t know who is going to come back.”
But by the end of Thursday the only mode of transport creeping back to normal was the car. Roads throughout the day had been at 85% of their normal capacity, with 4.3m car trips taken across the region, compared with 5m at the start of March. And despite the much-lauded cycling revolution, there were fewer bike trips than pre-lockdown when it was still cold, with 86,000 journeys on Wednesday, compared with 100,000 a day in early March.
Three hundred extra buses were put on to the most popular school routes to aid social distancing, but journeys were still at 45% of usual levels on Thursday.
Across England, 99.7% of schools reopened, according to the National Association of Head Teachers, with 80% saying they had at least 90% of their children turning up.
At St Mary’s primary school in Moss Side, the headteacher, Jenny McGarry, was nervous about the day ahead. False reports had been circulating on WhatsApp and Facebook in the run-up to the school reopening on Thursday, claiming that children would be “taken away” by social services if they had Covid symptoms.
In a message on the school’s website, parents were urged: “Please ignore these posts and please do not send on to others. If your child becomes ill in school, we will contact you directly and we will wait for you to pick them up and take them home.”
McGarry made a video explaining why year 6s would be wearing masks, and she hoped for the best. By 5pm on Thursday she was tired but elated. “We had 90% attendance,” she said. “I am so pleased with that when you consider that over the summer when we should have had 120 children in across two year groups, we never had any more than 25 turn up.”
Parents had got the message that school attendance was mandatory, she said. “They knew they would be fined. Plus I think after six months many parents have had enough.”
Though many children are now back in school, their parents may not have gone back to work. A survey from the TUC found that 41% of working mums with children under 10 did not have enough childcare this September.
The fall in transport use is reflected in city centres. According to the latest monthly tracker from the British Retail Consortium, retail footfall fell by 34.3% in August compared with the same month last year. In Manchester the situation is even worse, with footfall down 39.1% year on year, equating to 342,125 fewer people passing through the city’s main streets each week.
City centre bosses are desperate to get Mancunian office workers back to their desks. This week they launched a competition offering £200 for the best poster to encourage people to return. But it will take more than a poster to bring the city back to life.